Late-inning miracle puts joy back in a spring day


OUR MAN FELT trapped. He was stuck in the kind of corporate meeting he always dreaded -- face to face with a self-important suit who yapped at length about industry trends and big-picture stuff, a man with an infinite capacity to speak without interruption and to lace his sentences with pseudo-hip techno-jargon. It was a speech, not a conversation. The suit seemed to have little interest in ideas not his own, so our man sat, listened and disguised his frustration as the perfect spring afternoon slipped away.

Anyone who steps, wittingly or unwittingly, into the corporate culture has days like this, a Dilbert kind of day. A meeting that is supposed to be an exchange of ideas becomes a one-sided babble. It happens. It's a bummer. A double-bummer in the beckoning spring.

Perhaps 40 minutes into it, when the point of the meeting became lost in the flood of futurespeak, our man turned his attention away from the long-winded CEO on the couch and he thought easily of other things -- the light breeze turning the young leaves of the tree outside the office, the muffled but passionate song of birds, the promise of a cool evening and his son's baseball game.

All was not lost, our man thought. The afternoon had been boring and fruitless, even demeaning in a way. But the evening still held promise. It was his son's 10th birthday, and he had a game in Towson.

At 6 o'clock, the boys gathered on one of the older baseball fields behind the American Legion hall on York Road. The Reds played the Braves. Our man arrived just in time to see his son, the first baseman for the Reds, strike out looking at a pitch on the outside corner of the plate.

It's a difficult time for boys who love baseball. At 9 and 10, their coaches no longer pitch to them, and they are way past tee ball. Their peers do the pitching, and sometimes these boys throw strikes, and quite often these boys throw balls. They throw balls high and outside, and high and inside, and just high. They also pitch low and bouncy. And so, given the erratic nature of this presentation, it is difficult for boys to predict when a perfect strike might crease the plate.

Two innings later, our man's birthday boy struck out again -- this time swinging.

It seemed father and son were having similar experiences -- striking out in their respective endeavors, missing opportunities on a lovely spring day.

The game had been tied, 2-2, for a few innings now, and as the sun started to set, the baseball parents from both sides of the field seemed to become aware of this. A tie into the late innings is unusual in recreation league baseball, and low-scoring games even more unusual.

Our man's son got the call to pitch.

The boy had struggled at the plate, but maybe he would have a good outing on the mound. He faced the daunting task of holding the Braves scoreless until the Reds could bat again.

He threw many pitches, but few over the plate. He threw them high and outside, and high and inside, and just high.

And on the thigh of a Braves batter.

When he struck the next batter on the legs, a league rule had to be invoked: A pitcher who hits two in an inning automatically gets the gentle hook from his sympathetic coach.

And that's what happened to our boy. His coach waved the Reds first baseman to the mound, then patted the birthday boy on his shoulder and sent him to first. As the boy settled into his familiar corner of the infield, he dropped his head and started to cry.

Our man watched, then looked away. Everyone seemed to do the same. The boy was embarrassed. He felt he'd let his team down in a close game. To approach him and say something would only make him feel worse. The boy fought hard to stop crying and did so in less than a minute, just as the new pitcher finished his warm-ups. From a distance, our man watched his son recover from his tears and he remembered a time when his own life seemed to take all its emotional cues from the progress of a particular game, or season, or team. Most of us grow up and move away from competitive sports, and find our disappointments elsewhere -- in relationships, in our careers, in the CEO's office. Life is hard, it turns out. There are a million little frustrations, and sometimes something far worse. There can be days of sighs and exhaustion, or days -- even years -- when we feel we'll never smile again.

But the miracle -- and you have to hold out hope for the miracle -- is that, in the next minute of twilight, everything can turn around.

The boy came to bat for the last time with two runners on base and the game still tied, a minor miracle itself.

His father noticed that the birthday boy seemed more intense this time, his head bowed and his eyes angled sharply into the strike zone. He swung hard and fully, and the ball shot far down the right field line. The little right fielder of the Braves took off after it. The birthday boy raced around the bases, turned at third, sprinted home and slid under the catcher's tag, beating the many-relayed throw by a split second and igniting a celebration on the Reds bench. It turned out to be the winning hit of the game, a little miracle at sunset that saved the day.

Pub Date: 5/15/00

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